As a personal-finance writer, I often have to report on the negative stuff -- the fact that most Americans have inadequate savings and are misguided when it comes to retirement. So it's always a nice breath of fresh air when I get to deliver some good news, and this time, it's that over 75% of U.S. adults are making an effort to save money in some shape or form. That's the latest from a Discover study, which also found that millennials have the highest personal savings rate across all age groups.
Still, I'd be remiss if I didn't also highlight the fact that a large chunk of Americans continue to ignore their savings. Specifically, 19% of millennials aren't putting money away on the regular, and the same holds true for 26% of Gen Xers and 23% of baby boomers. And those are the folks who need to change their ways if they want a shot at financial stability in the near term, and the option to actually retire in the future.
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How do your emergency savings look?
First, let's talk near-term savings, because they should take priority over all else, including retirement. As a general rule, you should aim to have anywhere from three to six months' worth of living expenses available in an accessible savings account, no matter your age or income level.
Why that much? It's simple. No one is immune to emergencies. You never know when you might lose your job, fall ill, or come home to a busted heating system that costs several thousand dollars to repair. And if you don't have any money in the bank to cover the unexpected, you'll risk racking up costly credit card debt and the consequences that come with it.
A better bet? Establish that safety net, even if it means cutting expenses for a number of months to get there sooner. Another option? Work a side gig. That way, the extra money you take in can go directly into savings, since you shouldn't be counting on it to pay your living costs.
Are you prepared for the future?
Now let's talk retirement savings, and the fact that you'll need some if you want to live comfortably as a senior. Many people assume they don't need to save for retirement because Social Security will be there to cover their costs. But that's not how Social Security works.
In a best-case scenario, Social Security will replace about 40% of the typical senior's pre-retirement income. Most folks, however, need 80% of their former earnings to cover their costs in retirement, and these aren't the people who taking monthly cruises or spending their days on the golf course. Rather, they're the ones who simply need money to pay for their basic necessities, like housing, healthcare, clothing, and food.
So where will that money come from? You guessed it -- your savings, which is why you need to start socking money away as early as right now. The more time you give your nest egg to grow, the more income you'll have available when you really need it.
Remember, when you save for retirement in an IRA or 401(k), your cash doesn't just sit there doing nothing. Rather, you get the option to invest that money at what could be some pretty sizable returns.
Check out the following table, which shows how your nest egg might fare if you start contributing to it at various ages:
Notice that these figures assume a mere $200 monthly contribution. That's nowhere close to what IRAs and 401(k)s allow for today. With the former, you can set aside up to $5,500 a year if you're under 50, and $6,500 a year if you're 50 or older. If you have access to a 401(k) through your job, you have an even greater opportunity to save, since the annual limits just climbed to $18,500 for workers under 50, and $24,500 for the 50-and-over set.
Now if you're able to max out either type of account throughout your career, you stand to retire with some pretty serious money. But if you can't max out, which is the case for most folks, do the best you can. As long as you contribute consistently, you stand to benefit from a respectable amount of growth.
While it's encouraging to see that so many Americans are making an effort to save money, there's still a good chunk of the population with work to do. So if you've been neglecting your near-term and long-term savings, it's time to get moving. And tell your friends to do the same, because if all goes well, come this time next year, I just might get to write a very different story.
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